So a recent blog post got my attention—the author wanted to see if novels could be distinguished by their punctuation. A kindred spirit, he believes punctuation is a fundamental part of writing.
Adam J. Calhoun compares Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom! with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The differences are visible and as striking as one would expect. Blood Meridian consists mostly of short, crisp sentences—seen as several consecutive periods with no intervening marks, breaks of an occasional comma, a dash here and there, more periods. The punctuation in Absalom, Absalom! looks the way Faulkner reads: he uses everything he can get his hands on, with lots of commas and far fewer periods. The author of this study calls it “statements within statements within statements.”
He adds other novels to his discussion. Surely, I thought, he’ll include Woolf! But no, he mentions Ulysses, Pride & Prejudice, A Farewell to Arms, and a few others. I couldn’t leave it there. A few years ago I wrote an essay about punctuation and drew from To the Lighthouse to demonstrate Woolf’s creative use of punctuation; I had some data to add to the picture.
To his visual comparisons of Faulkner’s and McCarthy’s textless text, I add a brief example from To the Lighthouse:
” , , , ” . ” , ” . , , , , , , , . , ,
, , , , , , , , , . . , , , , , , — , ,
, , , , , , . ” , ” , , ” . ” , , , , .
; , , , , , , ( ) , . . . ; ; , , , , ; ;
This is just the first few paragraphs (I did several pages) but you get the idea. Woolf’s sentences skip and dance and weave with runs of commas; there are eleven of them in a 100-word sentence on the first page. You rarely see two periods (simple sentences) in a row. She peppers her prose (more evident in a more extensive sampling) with semicolons, dashes, parentheses, exclamation marks and ellipses.
Blood Meridian averages 15 words per sentence, Absalom 40, Lighthouse (in my sampling) 34, Farewell to Arms 10. Ursula LeGuin says of Hemingway: “He had many guns, several spouses, and a beard. He wrote short sentences.”